Monday, August 1, 2016


The first time Claire opened the closet door and found a long, dark hallway, she closed the door and left.  A silver jolt of adrenaline snarled up from her stomach to her heart and then constricted around her throat.  Her fingers curled arthritically around the door knob and her hand felt separated from the rest of her body by static, but she managed to close the door. 
Closed the door and left the room.
Within a day, the memory had taken on a surreal, fuzzy tone and by the fourth day, she could not think about it in the same space as reality.  She’d had vivid dreams all her life.  She could remember certain dreamscapes more clearly than the house she was born in. 
She did not go back and open the closet door.  She knew she didn’t have to.  Didn’t have to prove anything.  Her older sister, Jen, and her boyfriend, Marco, opened it all the time and there was always just a closet.
It was the trauma.
The stress.
The sleepless nights and the new surroundings.

I’d stayed with Jen before and I’d known Marco almost as long as Jen had, but this wasn’t a sleepover in my big sister’s city apartment.  This was Dad finally losing his job again and Child Services finding his stash after I had to drive him to the hospital.  I hadn’t been able to stay in my own lane on the drive there and had been pulled over.  Dad and I had been loaded into the cop car and taken the rest of the way to the hospital.  The cop said I wouldn’t be in trouble, I was only thirteen.  I’d done what I thought was right and blah, blah, blah, did I know what had happened to my father?
His nose was bleeding and he was puking and seizing, of course I knew what was wrong with my dad. 
Marco cleared out his office the day I got there, stacking all his stuff in the corners of the living room.  He left his desk in there until he could reorganize the living room.
“We’ll look into something better than an air mattress soon,” Jen promised.
Which means they think this is permanent.  Marco’s sacrificing his office and Jen’s buying me a bed.  Dad’s gonna survive, but they don’t think he’ll keep custody.  Jen thinks she’d be a better guardian than Dad.  She’d never say it, not now that she’s outta the house, anyway, but she still thinks it.  Marco thinks so too, but he comes from a real family.  He thinks Dad should always get another chance anyway.
No one talks about custody.  We talk about him, but not about it.
“He’s agreed to go into rehab again.”
“He’ll get it straight this time, it never sticks the first try.”
“We’ll make a trip over there next weekend.”
Dad loves Marco.  Loves him.  He knows Marco believes in family, knows Marco will always give him a second chance.  And a third.  And now he knows Marco will make sure Jen can’t keep me away from him.  She wouldn’t, but he worries.


Weekends came and went before Claire opened the closet again.  This time she brought a flashlight.  Because it was only her.  Because Jen and Marcos and that one dude who had bunked here during a road trip all opened the closet and it was just a closet.  Because when Jen had been busy making breakfast and asked Claire to grab a jacket from the closet, she had faked sick to avoid opening the door and seeing that not-closet. 
So while Jen was at work and Marco was out to meet her for lunch, Claire grabbed a flashlight and went to the closet.
The closet opened into darkness.  Claire’s thumb slipped off the button twice before she managed to click on the flashlight.  The beam twitched and swayed.  The hallway’s floor was made of what looked like chain link fencing, but the links were much smaller and closer together.  The walls were corrugated sheet metal.  When Claire turned the beam to the ceiling, she felt the floor lurch beneath her feet slightly.  Above her was pure blackness and even with the flashlight, she could not see the ceiling.  She turned the beam back downward.
The walls wept rivulets of corrosion and rust down its ridges.
At the very edge of her flashlight’s beam, Claire could make out a wall where the hall branched right and left. 
Crouching just outside the threshold, she tapped the end of her flashlight against the floor.  The beam flickered off briefly and the floor clinked.  Claire waited—

One-one thousand.
Two-one thousand…

…One hundred twenty-one thousand.

—and nothing changed.  The floor didn’t fall away, there was no scrabbling within the walls, and no voices calling faintly from within.  Claire pressed her hand lightly against the floor and then pressed down.  Harder and harder, but the metal links barely bowed at all.  Which, she knew, meant it was time to decide. 
She stalled a minute longer, turning the flashlight over in her hand and rapping the butt of it loudly against the wall.  The sound echoed down the hall a ways and she counted off sixty seconds.  She stretched out her right leg, straddling bedroom and the closet.  And then she brought her left foot across. 
When her father hadn’t paid the cable bill, he’d joked about ants taking over the TV when all they could see was static.  Little black and white ants rioting across the screen.  Her chest felt like that now, like roiling waves of insects skittering around inside of her.
She stomped one foot against the floor and the chain links chink and chime sharply.  No light pushed into her peripheral vision from behind, from where the windows in Jen’s bedroom were.  The air smelled stale and damp and little motes of light flew in little flurries across her flashlight’s beam.  Deeper into the not-closet, metal groaned softly.  Her legs wouldn’t carry her another step forward.  The sound of her foot first clanking against the floor had severed all lines of communication between her brain and her extremities. 
Which is all the same in the end because the only signals her brain could send out involve complicated strings of shrill, panicked denials. 
A shining sliver of panic lodged into her brain.  Behind her, where the closet door should have been and through which light from the bedroom windows should have been shining, she heard hoarse, labored breathing.  Close enough to cut through her brain’s vapor lock.  She spun back toward the door, dimly aware that it must’ve been her own breathing that startled her, and saw the doorway was still there.  The bedroom was just as she left it and sun was still shining in through the windows.  The light just didn’t reach the not-closet.  It was like an unfinished drawing, the light just ended at the threshold.  So did the distinctive smell of the heavy duty laundry detergent Jen used.  The room had reeked of it since Marco had piled all the clean laundry onto the bed to be sorted, but just a foot into the not-closet, the smell was totally absent.  So were the sounds of suburbia.  No cars, no lawnmowers, and no kids running around on the weekend.
Just a low, bubbling snarl that rolled through the corridor.
Her brain shut down entirely.  Survival instincts older than the human race kicked in like hotwiring a car.  Exposed wires touched and the engine coughed to life.
Claire ran.


Marco found her crying in her room when he got home from lunch.  She didn’t answer when he knocked on the door.
“Claire, I gotta know you’re okay.  If you can’t tell me you aren’t concussed or bleeding, I have to come in, alright?”
She grunts something wet and hoarse and not nearly coherent enough to appease Marco.  He comes in, eyes circling her.  Looking for any sign of injury.  No blood, no heavy fallen objects, and no holes in the wall so he shifts gears.  Loud, concerned, and authoritative softens.
“Hey, hey, hey, Claire—Claire what’s wrong?”
It takes a couple minutes of cajoling just to get the ball rolling, but eventually Claire remembers the basics of human speech.

“Nothing, Marco, nothing.  Sorry, just forget about it.”
He crouches down next to me and puts a hand on my forearm.  His hands are delicate and slim and Jen always makes fun of them when they pretend to bicker.  I turn my head so none of the tears trickle down onto his hand.
“You know the house rules, I’m not allowed to forget about it if you keep crying.”
“That’s not a thing, you made that up.  Just—”
“C’mon, kid.  I know I’m not Jen, but I am almost a fully-functional adult and I’m engaged to a psychiatric nurse.  That has to make me qualified to help out a crying middle-school girl, right?”
“Marco, it’s—I don’t wanna talk about it, okay?”
“Was it a boy?  I’m not much good at fixing heartbreak, but I can call Grandma Fuentes.  She’s got hook-ups with some nasty folks.  Cartels and shit, y’know?”
I hiccup and snort.  Grandma Fuentes is short and plump and the smiliest person on Earth.  When I look up at him, the world comes into focus.  The new room filled with my old stuff.  The baseboard of my bed that I’m leaning against, the brightly colored pillows and blankets, the mess on the floor, and the light from the window coating almost every surface in sight.  Outside sounds come filtering in.  The gushing tears subside into a leaky, snotty mess.
“Shut up, Marco.  I’m gonna tell her you’re lying about her again.”
Normalcy slowly reasserts itself.  The impossible starts feeling impossible again.  Closets are just closets and I’m just some little girl crying on her older sister’s fiancĂ©. 
I drop my head, so my hair covers my face, and wipe my nose.
“How was lunch with Jen?”
It takes a second for him to respond.  If he answers, it takes us completely away from whatever I was crying about.  I keep my head down until he speaks, putting my face back together and letting the fabric of reality knit itself back together.
“Good, good.  Went to that little pub thing, McArthur’s.”
“Talk about anything fun?”
“Eh, I think they’re gonna cancel one of the comics I’m working on right now, so I don’t need to be three issues ahead anymore.”
“Aw, which one?”
“The ghost story one.”
Campfires?  But your art was so good on that one!”
Marco smiles.  “Yeah, but did you actually read it?  Dude had no idea what to do with the story after they gave him a second story arc.”
“True.”  I pause.  “And he wasn’t a great writer to start with.”
“Heh, at least he sent me the scripts on time.”
The normalcy briefly butts up against what happened earlier, but my brain is getting less and less willing to process it with every second.  “Not like Duncan.”
He rolls his eyes dramatically.  “Duncan is an artiste, what does punctuality mean to a work of such literary import?”
I turn up my nose haughtily—the image slightly offset by the sniffling, “The critics simply adore your collaboration though, Marco.”  My hand flutters.  “The, the…symbiosis of your pencils and his words is simply transcendent.”
“Ugh,” he grimaces “Now you’re just reading the back cover of the first trade paperback.  And don’t let Jen hear you talk like that, she still likes Duncan.”
I snort.  “That’s because she thinks it’ll be an easy out-patient procedure to get his head back out of his ass.”
Marco laughs.  “Don’t swear like that.  Jen’s gonna think you’re picking up bad habits from me, kid.”


The metal floor rattled and clinked as she walked across.  Halfway between the door and the wall ahead, Claire uncapped an oversized car marker and drew a huge orange arrow pointing back toward the door.  She capped the marker and swung the flashlight beam over the arrow, it lit up slightly like a reflector on a bike.
Sleep deprivation and wildly inconsistent eating habits have taken their toll.  Her brain felt stuck between gears, a single-minded, obsessive focus on the not-closet and a floaty disconnect from the world.  Her skull felt a size too small for her brain and her scalp tingled.  The ant riot raged across her chest.
She’d almost brought Jen or Marco along with her this time.  The closet was just a closet when they opened it, but what about when she opened it in front of them?  Almost.  She’d been stymied by the other side of the coin.  What if she opened the door and there was nothing?  To be crazy and unable to tell reality from fantasy or to be sane and thought crazy.  Those would be her options at that point and she might never figure out which was true.  Jen worked at a psych ward for teenagers.  Just a couple days ago they’d admitted a girl because of a psychotic break.  Couldn’t figure out what was real. 
Jen came home exhausted that night, looked completely heartbroken telling Marco about that girl.  It was that look that kept Claire from talking to them.  Because that girl was only two years older than Claire and couldn’t figure out what was real. 
So she’d walked over to Wal Mart, bought two car markers and a backup flashlight.  She’d loaded her hand-me-down satchel bag with the markers, flashlight, a bottle of water, and a bag of Chex mix and waited for the house to empty out.
Trying to get a grasp on her own thoughts felt like trying to pick a single conversation out of the din of the gym right before an assembly started.  It was all jumbled fragments and foggy murmurs that never solidified. 
Carrots and peas.  Carrots and peas.
Her dad had told her that when actors needed to create noise like background conversations, they would say things like “carrots and peas” and gesture like it all meant something grand.  Nonsense sounds to round out the silence.  But the bit players in her head weren’t doing their jobs right.  The din was becoming a rising tide, drowning out the important dialogue.  The leads were tripping over their lines and only a few useful bits of information could reach through the noise.
Leave an arrow.
Shine a light down the hallway before walking.
Drink some water.
Carrots and peas.
The fragments that made it through, they weren’t really her thoughts.  She was vaguely aware of that.  The car marker was just breadcrumbs.  The light was just look before you leap.  The water was just her Dad’s voice, ironic advice about her health.  All external thoughts that had lodged into her brain.
The beam of her flashlight bobbed from wall-to-wall-to-floor and it occurred to Claire that something had changed.  The floor was no longer rusted links of metal, it was cement.  Rough like sandpaper and, in places, damp and stained.  A sharp, acidic smell wafted towards her.
One of her own fragments shouted to be heard.  Over and over, the same sentiment tumbled softly through her mind.
What if Jen comes home?
What if Marco comes into the bedroom during a break?
Over and over.
What happens if someone closes the door?
Claire turned a corner without uncapping the marker.  Freezes.  The last seven seconds rubber banded back to her brain.  Like having a conversation where you didn’t quite hear what the other person said and your brain takes a second to process it, getting the information straightened out even as you say “what?”
The part of her brain focused on walking herself through this maze, the part dedicated to breadcrumbs and hydration, and the part overrun by anxieties and questions, they all drew her attention in rapid-fire bursts. 
The brain doesn’t really multitask.  Not the way people like to think.  A teacher had explained it when a student tried to say she was paying attention to the assignment and texting.  You can do multiple things at once—breathe, walk, listen to music—but your brain isn’t focusing on those things all at once.  Breathing and walking and idly thinking, those are all automatic.  The brain can do them without any conscious thought.  But trying to do multiple things that require real brain power at once doesn’t work.  The brain can’t really manage it.  Instead, it splits its focus, jumping from one to the next to the next in rapid succession.  It gives the illusion of multitasking, particularly to those who can shift focus very quickly, but it’s imperfect.  There are gaps.  Holes.  Overlap.  Places where something gets lost in the mix.
Something Claire had missed finally caught. 
The last time she turned, she hadn’t left an arrow.  And maybe the time before.  She had made three turns in fairly rapid succession, had she marked any of them?
The floor changed to concrete, but the walls were also different. Painted cinderblocks, instead of rusted sheet metal.
Footsteps.  Soft, almost inaudible footsteps approached from off to her left.  Still a ways off, but moving towards her.  Until they stopped.  For a second there was silence and then she heard footsteps again, softly clop, clopping like the wingtips her Dad wore to work and to court.  Another hall cut across up ahead.

Clop,                      clop,                      clop,                      clop,                      clop...                   clop,                           clop,                         clop,                         clop,                                                       

The footsteps crossed at the intersection ahead, but nothing crossed Claire’s flashlight beam.  Just little motes of dust, drunkenly tumbling to the floor.  The footsteps trailed off to the right and Claire took two hurried steps forward.  Keeping tight to the left wall, she craned her neck out to see around the corner.  She heard footsteps still faintly marching forward, but whether they were real or not delved down too many levels for her to process.
From around the corner behind her, something rumbled a cracked, wheezing bass tone.
Claire dropped her flashlight and pushed off the wall.  She turned to run, stepped on the flashlight, and tumbled to the ground.  The flashlight’s beam spun sickeningly.  Her left ankle, her forearms, and hands shot flares up to her brain.  Until Claire looked in the direction of the rumble as the flashlight’s beam came to a stop.  Half of the beam splashed against the corner, but enough of it went down the hall to completely disable Claire’s fine motor skills.  Her brain gibbered and howled.
It was humanoid, hulking and malformed.  One enormous arm rested against the wall.  The other arm was shorter, swinging uselessly at its side.  Its head lolled sideways against its massive right arm, looking downward.  Spittle and what looked like blood dribbled down off its face and onto the floor.  Some part of her brain connected the stains and dampness.  The creature shivered, lurched a half-step forward, and made a gurgling, retching noise.  Something wet and stringy plopped to the floor.  It shook harder and rumbled again, deep and fuzzy, like a blown-out subwoofer.  Not just spit and blood, stomach acid.  It was so hunched over it could barely lift its head to walk.  Barely illuminated, its face looked like rotted flesh that had melted like wax.  Its stench was a tangible thing, hands pressed tightly over her mouth and nose. 
Her brain struggled to start back up, but kept tripping over itself.
How had this thing snuck up on her?  How had she not noticed it sooner?
It stumbled and vomited again, blood and stomach acid and foamy spit splotching the floor and her brain finally coughed to life.  For a brief second, she had seen the image of a person superimposed against the hulking thing.  Moving forward with stumbling, rubber-legged steps and a hand against the wall, blood and spit and vomit trailing behind.  The image held for half a second before fading, but it was enough.
Claire spun, kicked up off the ground, and ran.  Her stride was uneven, her ankle swollen, but she was back on the rusted chain-link floor in seconds.  Seconds after that, she saw the doorway back to Jen’s room.  A small voice bristled at the impossibility of finding the door so quickly and so close, but Claire pushed that voice down as far as she could.  She needed the door and the door was there, that’s what mattered.


“Is Dad crazy?”
And just like that, it’s out.  Completely circumventing the thinking-things-through part of my brain and going right to the let’s-blurt-out-all-the-edgy-paranoid-things-running-around-my-head part.  Something happens to Jen’s face, but I don’t look too closely to find out what.
“I mean, it’s a disease, right?  Addiction’s a disease in your mind.  That’s what everyone kept telling us.  ‘It’s not his fault.’  ‘There’s nothing you could do, don’t blame yourselves.’  All that stuff.”  Somebody’s cut the brake line to my mouth.  I’m hot and I’m shaking and I can’t stop talking.  I think I’m actually melting from the inside-out.  “So something in his brain isn’t wired right or, or, or, it-it’s not firing right or not producing something.  It’s not voices-in-your-head crazy or seeing-something-that’s-not-there cr—”
Whatever I was ignoring in Jen comes to a head.  She wraps her arms around me and presses her cheek against mine so fast and so hard that my head bounces off of hers.  Little bruised, purple splotches creep around the corners of my vision.  For a second, I wonder if I really am melting.  Jen’s squeezing me like I might slosh through her fingers and the left side of my face and neck is wet.  Until I actually hear her softly sob, it doesn’t hit home that she’s crying.  I lean into her and we sit like that for a minute.  Jen softly crying and me too stuck between babbling and hugging to do anything else. 
She leans away for a second, splotchy and snotty and staring intensely.  She rests her hands against my cheeks.  “How long have I taken care of you?”
Automatically, I think:  Twelve, almost thirteen years.
Mom and Dad had figured out how badly they worked right around when Jen started developing adult perceptions of the world.  And then they screwed up and had another kid.  I have no idea why they stayed together as long as they did, but Mom was gone within a year of me being born.  Dad told me once that he’d had to fight tooth and nail to keep me from being aborted.  I don’t think he remembers telling me anything about it.  Dad loved kids, but wasn’t the sort to anchor an entire family all on his own.  He had his hands full balancing keeping a job and hiding his drug abuse.  Jen managed the home front.  Made friends with our elderly neighbor, Miss Williams, so someone could look after me while she was at school and kept the house running after she got out.
She’s turning twenty-seven in a month and a half and she’ll have spent nearly thirteen years of her life taking care of me.
“Forever,” I finally say.  “Even after you moved in with Marco, I spent more time here than at home.”
“And now you’re here with me full-time and I’m seeing less of you than I did before.”  She runs her thumb across my cheek, wiping away a leaky drip I hadn’t even noticed.  “I’m working too much, I—”
“Jen, you’re busy.  You’re covering shifts.  Your job is importa—”
“I’m making myself busy.”  She blurts.  “I’m picking up too many extra shifts, way more than I should.  Zari’s told me she’s gonna stop letting me cover shifts if I keep this up.”
Zari lost a nurse last year.  Suicide.  She was sweet before, always fawning over how I’d grown at Christmas parties and the like.  Since then, she’s looked a little ragged.  Spread thin.
Jen’s stopped crying.  Her face is red and her nose is runny, but she’s back to what I always think of as The Core of Jen:  ignoring all the white noise and focusing in on what she wants.  Nursing school, taking care of Dad and me, or making a relationship with Marco work through it all.  Whatever she wants, whatever she centers her focus on, is all there is in existence.  It’s probably why she and Marco have made it work, despite her splitting focus between him, nursing, and her family.  It’s probably why Dad gets so worried sometimes, he knows he has rightfully earned her ire.  And it’s why, when my mind drifts towards the closet again, I finally have a moment of clarity.

I wash my hands for what feels like the seventh time in the last ten minutes and splash water on my face.  I turn the knob all the way to the right and then splash some more water on my face.  The skin around my eyes whines about the cold and my stomach threatens another rebellion, but I am in control of all this.  The cold water cleared my head and my stomach has already emptied itself completely.  I close my eyes and just breathe.  Deep inhale through my nose.  Hold it.  Even, measured exhale through my mouth. 
I must have picked up a dozen calming and relaxation methods from Jen when she was in school.  It doesn’t stop my legs from shaking or my stomach from trying to collapse in on itself, but it uproots my feet from the tile floor and starts me out toward Jen’s bedroom.
Jen would be thrilled to know that some of the relaxation exercises she practiced on me actually got put to use.  Maybe I’ll make up a story about a really hard test and tell her I breathed my way through it. 
I wrap my hand around the doorknob and turn slowly so that the latch retracting doesn’t make a sound.  I swing the door halfway open in one motion and it groans softly in protest.  Any further and it’ll really start to creak.  I turn sideways and squeeze through the gap, careful not to lean forward or backward and bump into anything. 
When Elena had moved away three years ago, I had dreamt of walking out through the sliding doors.  Instead of coming out in our backyard, I came out in a small glass box, hovering over the neighborhood.  Everything moved at double or triple speed below.  Moving vans took up most of Elena’s driveway.  The movers came and went, carrying boxes and furniture out into the back of the vans, but as each item was set down it caught fire.  A box came to rest, ignited, burned brilliantly for a second or two, and then another box was set down on the ashes and the cycle began anew. 
Elena’s family had lived in that house for years before we moved in two doors down.  She was the first playdate I went on after moving in.  We’d gotten on the bus together for the first day of school.  We sat together every day for lunch and brought homework assignments for each other when one of us was sick.  My mom left when I was too young to really understand, so Elena was my first experience with losing someone important.  I remember a lot of sitting around my room, but I remember the nightmares more than anything else.
I move on my tiptoes, trying to minimize the floor’s groans.  The carpet’s too thin to soften my footsteps much.  Marco grunts and fidgets in his sleep and I freeze.  My stomach clenches more tightly into a ball and a prickling wave of cold rolls out through my abdomen. 
Two years before Elena moved, Dad didn’t come home one weekend.  Left for work Friday morning and didn’t come home for dinner.  He wasn’t home when Jen and I woke up the next morning either. Later that night, I woke up and walked around the house.  I couldn’t see out any of the windows and neither of the doors out would open.  Dad wasn’t in his room and neither was Jen.  I walked around until I heard a scratching in the kitchen.  As I got closer to the pantry, I realized it wasn’t just one scratching sound.  Faint, like it was coming from far deeper back than the pantry even extended, I could hear small, sharp things scraping.  I ran out of the kitchen and heard scratching under the sofa in the living room.  Heard it in the armchair and saw something straining against the cushion’s cloth.  The scratching was in the towel closet in the hall and under the sink in the bathroom and franticly clawing at Dad’s door. 
I told Jen about it the next morning—Dad was still not home—about how real it was and how I couldn’t remember waking up from it, I just opened my bedroom door and was back in the normal house.  She told me it was a dream, that she never left her bedroom last night.  Maybe I’d heard a bird or squirrel scratching at the window and that had made it into my dream.  She told me that she knew the best remedy for bad dreams—a sleepover in her room. 
Dad had shown up after a dinner of mac ‘n cheese.  Jen sent me to her room and the two of them fought it out.  I could hear Jen screaming even down the hall.  Afterward, Jen came in and we stayed in for the rest of the night.  We watched movies on her laptop until it was time for bed.  Curled up next to Jen, I didn’t dream of a house filled with scratching, but for weeks afterward I was convinced there was something wrong with that house. 
I remind myself that tonight is just a test run.  Tell myself I’m not going inside if the closet isn’t a closet when I open it.  Tell myself again, that I am in control.  I breathe deeply as Jen snores softly.  Each part of the breath, the inhale, the pause, and the exhale, all last longer than usual.  I make a conscious effort to breathe in more deeply than is natural, to pause longer than is comfortable, and to breathe out until my lungs feel empty.  None of it automatic, none of it out of my control.
My arms are heavy and unwieldly, but they move when I tell them to.  My hand grips the door knob. I look over at the bed—Jen is right over there—and pull the closet open. 
Clothes and shoes and sheets and blankets.
The next morning, I ask Jen if I can borrow a scarf. 
“Which one?”
“I dunno, come pick one out with me.”
She smiles, doubly ready to do her sisterly duties after our talk, and leads me to her room.  I slip in front of her so I’m the one opening the door.  Later today, I’ll probably have a heart-shaped bruise in the center of my chest from the industrial-strength beating it’s doing. 
The door opens up and I practically collapse into the closet.  I don’t leave the closet the whole time.  I stand in the threshold, draping one scarf over my shoulders and then the next, modeling for Jen.  She chooses the striped one, an array of icy blues, purples, and white cascading down to the fringy edges. 
Halfway to the door, I stop.
“Go ahead, I’m gonna go back to the closet and grab a blanket.  I was a little cold last night.”
Last time.  Final test.
The closet was a closet with them asleep, it was a closet with Jen in here with me, and it’s going to be a closet again when I’m alone.
More of Jen’s breathing exercises.
I wait until I hear her talking to Marco in the kitchen before opening the closet again.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Straight to Hell

There ain't no need for you!
There ain't no need for you…
Go straight to hell, boy…
Go straight to hell, boy!

D’ya wanna know a secret?  I think I like The Menzingers’ cover of Straight to Hell better than the original rendition by The Clash.  Don’t tell anyone.  The punk community would have me taken outside the city limits and stoned to death.  It’s not that The Menzingers are a bad band (they’re one of the best punk bands to come out of the 2000s); it’s just unfathomably heretical to say anyone can do a Clash song better than The Clash.  If you ask me though, The Menzingers just run a current through the song that The Clash never did.  Kicks ya right in the ass.

But who am I to say?  I’m probably drunk…

You wanna join in a chorus
Of the Amerasian blues?
When it's Christmas out in Ho Chi Minh City
Kiddie say papa papa papa papa papa-san, take me home

“See me got’a pho’o—pho’o—pho’ograp’! Uh you an’ Ma’, Ma’a-san!  Uh you ‘n’ Ma’a Ma’a-san!”

Well, judging from my slurring I’m definitely drunk.  I push myself off the couch and stagger toward the kitchen for another drink.  Swaying around my coffee table and managing to squeeze through the doorway that refuses to stay still, I nearly topple over the second my foot hits vinyl.  For a moment I look like one of those child’s toys, weighted at the bottom so I’ll always bounce back up for me.  The counter pushes me to the refrigerator which bounces me in a semi-circle before I catch myself on the stove.

“Wezley wob’les bu’ he ‘on’t fall down!  Hee Hee!”

I slump to the floor still laughing.  I dunno when the evening stopped being funny, but pretty soon I’m crying instead of laughing.

“The’ you re’lize you got’a ‘ave a pur’ose…or ‘his place iz gonna knock you ou’ sooner er la’er.”

I ignore the bottle sitting somewhere above my head and I ignore that I’m still wearing everything but my suit jacket.  Instead I focus on how nice the cool, smooth floor feels against my throbbing head and I drift listlessly into dark.


I wake up to the dull patter of rain against the kitchen window.  Gray, shifting skies tell me the rain probably won’t let up any time soon.  Just as well, if the sun was out in full force I’d have to pull the curtains for the sake of my headache.  I push myself up off the ground (upsy-daisy) and squeeze my eyes shut, waiting for the motion sickness to pass.  Just makes me wonder why I drink.

As I dig my hands in the cold, dark dirt
In a search for roots now lost forever
With one last great hope of a messiah
I check the time and admit to the surrender terms.
Remember the days when I had a conscience?
Yeah, me neither.

I shuffle into the living room and jab at the stereo’s power button to kill the music.  I don’t really like the silence any better, so I turn the power back on and scroll through my iPod.  I settle on a playlist and turn the volume down a bit.  Red City Radio filters through the speakers.

We're moving backwards, not forwards
And the time we've wasted is killing us
And it's time that we all grow up
And it's time that we lose our way home
And it's time that we found a new one
Where nobody else knows

Good modern punk bands are few and far between so I spend a minute just enjoying the music.

Next up is a change of clothes and a thorough mouth cleaning.  I wobble down the hall, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror and do a double take.  I’m still baby-faced, my haircut is still too short, and my eyes are still bloodshot but the shadowy figure is no longer standing over my shoulder.  Life’s little blessings.

I kick off my shoes and strip off my shirt, my tie, and my slacks.  My phone falls out of my pocket, hitting the carpet with a soft whump.  Without giving it any real thought I scoop the phone off the ground, run my thumb of the screen in a jagged, angular pattern to unlock it, and scroll down to Jenna’s number.

Her voice is warm and friendly and inviting and her laugh is so genuine I almost forget why I’m calling.  She asks if I wanna put something on the books and I ask if she’s got time for me tonight.  I can hear her smiling on the other end of the line when she tells me that she does indeed and would I like to meet at her place or mine.  I tell her mine and not to eat, I’ll cook for her.

“Nobody else is half the gentleman you are, Wesley.  I’ll be around at 8.”

           And the only thing we know
           Is it’s getting dark and we better go
           And the only thing we say
           Are the despairs of the day

           And if you’re too tired
           Go to sleep, my brothers, I
           And if you’re too tired
           Go to sleep, my brothers, I’m alright to drive

           And we’re much too young of men
           To carry such heavy heads
           And tonight for the first time
           It felt good to be alive

I put the appointment into my phone’s calendar within a second of hanging up.  I set an alarm as well.  I’d like to say I did this because I was so thoroughly organized but the truth was that an alarm made sure I didn’t start drinking again and lose track of the day. 

I scratch my ribs, a familiar gesture that ran my fingernails over an old tattoo.  Four vertical black bars staggered so that the first and third were shifted up slightly higher than the second and third.  It had faded a bit during its decade plus long life, but there’s no mistaking Black Flag’s logo. 

Water, the only fully functional part of my brain reminds me.  My brain’s developed a heartbeat and my stomach feels like a landfill and everyone on earth has a surefire (made-up) way to cure a hangover, but at the end of the day a hangover’s dehydration. 

That and your brain trying to comprehend its own stupidity.  And either way, a greasy breakfast from McDonald’s the same as a sugar pill.

I stick glass under the sink, fill it, and chug it and then repeat the process, ignoring the uncomfortable sloshing feeling in my stomach. 

Standing in my kitchen, mostly naked, squinting, sipping a third class of water, and smelling like a guy who got thrown out of bar and kept on drinking once he got home, I put the glass down and head to the bathroom.  Calling Jenna distracted me earlier, but basic hygiene still needs attending to.

I catch my hand before it automatically flips the bathroom light on and tend to myself in a state of grey that seems to only exist on cloudy weekend mornings. 

Four aspirin first.  Someone at the office yesterday was telling me that dry swallowing pills, especially on an empty stomach was bad for you, and when I politely pretending that was interesting information I would use to better my life, went on to tell me that I shouldn’t even keep pills in the bathroom at all.  I wondered aloud why they called it a medicine cabinet if I wasn’t supposed to keep pills in it.  I never caught the explanation over the raucous in my head, wondering why I was the only person dumb enough to get stuck in these conversations.  I splash my face with water, run a toothbrush around my mouth, and try to avoid making eye contact with myself in the mirror. 

A fine bit of advice:  never make eye contact with someone looking for a fight.

Hey hey, I got a monster in the closet
The door's open even though I've tried to lock it
His teeth are long, he's gonna eat me today
No matter what you say, I won't be OK, so there

Hey hey, won't you just turn out your pocket
And gimme something I can put up on the docket
A simple strategy for fighting it back,
It's not like talking to it nice is gonna put it on track

Just a stick or a broom that'll help me get it out of the room
I don't wanna meet my own doom tonight

So hey, just help me out
Lend me a shotgun please for just one bout

Shorts, t-shirt, socks, and tennis shoes.  I’ve been paying for gym membership for seven years now, despite the fact that the last two years I can count the number of times I went on one hand.  It’s already May and this year’s numbers are on-track to be even worse.  I stuff a change of clothes into my gym bag along with a collection of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut because who am I kidding, I can dress up all I want, I’m not going to the gym. 

I’ll walk to the bakery around the corner and then sit outside somewhere and maybe finish a book I’ve already read three times.


“My jaw hurts.”

Jenna laughed.  It was warm and genuine and not at me.  Never at me, even when I was the only thing to laugh at.  She took the icepack out of my hand and pressed it to my jaw.  “Of course it does, Wes.  You got yourself punched by the pizza delivery boy.  You’re lucky he didn’t rob you afterward.”

“Eh.  He was a nice enough guy, just wanted what he was owed.”

She smiled.  “That’s a rather kind assessment of a man you just got into a fistfight with.”

“Hah!  You are a very generous person to call me getting laid out by a frat boy a ‘fight’.”

“Oh, I should see the other guy.  I bet he’s a mess.”

“He may not look it, but he is all torn up inside.  I bet it took him minutes, nay, seconds to recover.”  I run my tongue over my teeth.  Thankfully nothing seems obviously loose.  “At least he waited for a full three days after my jaw stopped hurting from last time.”

She laughed again.  “Oh God, that’s right.  You never told me what that was.”

Smiling costs me dearly, but it really is a funny story.

My head slid off of my hand and hit the bar chin first.  Randall muffled a laugh behind his washcloth.

“Fallin’ asleep on me Wesley?”

I smiled.  I could see my reflection in the mirror behind the bar, I looked drunk and cheery.

“Asleep?  Nah.  I’m just plotting, but I fell too deep into my own schemes and lost track of the real world.”

This earned a belly laugh from Randall that he didn’t bother to hide.  “And what the hell are you plotting with yourself in such a sorry state?”

I grin my drunk’s grin again and point a wobbling finger toward the shelf over Randall’s shoulder.  “That bottle ‘a whiskey.  I’m gonna steal it.”

Randall’s expression becomes the same semi-solemn look one gives to a drunk or a child who wants to be taken seriously.  I wonder which he thinks I am.  “S’at so?  And how do you plan to pull off such a caper?”

“Hee Hee.  I can’t tell you that, Randall.”

“Yeah, cuz if I knew you were gonna steal it, I’d be able to stop you.  Can’t have the heist of the century foiled by a bartender past his fightin’ prime.  It’d be an embarrassment.”

I tapped a finger against the general vicinity of my nose, careful to avoid putting an eye out.  It took me three tries, but I finally managed to stop poking my cheek.

“Another beer, bar keep!”

Randall rolls his eyes and fills another mug.  He sets it in front of me with a heavy thunk.  Randall doesn’t cheap out on his mugs, they’re solid and heavy and they make me think of a longhouse full of Vikings swilling mead and swaying back and forth after a successful day of looting and plundering.  Randall wanders further down the bar to tend to other customers, shaking his head and smiling.  The moment his back’s turned I make my move.  I pull myself up onto the bar and lunged toward the top shelf, hand extended toward the stubby neck of the bottle.  Things start going sideways before I’ve covered half the distance.

Something brushed against my chest and my beer spills.  Tenuous was my grip on the bar before my hand was covered in beer and suddenly my grip is nonexistent.  My stomach hits the bar and I start a rapid, face-first, decent to the floor behind the bar.  Some generous, burly soul grabs my ankle and the back of my pants to keep me from breaking my face on tile.  Instead my head jerks forward and my chin hits a shelf beneath the bar hard enough that I lose a couple seconds.

Bobby the Bouncer has me on the ground, leaning against the bar and is asking me questions.  Failing to foil my heist, he decided to foil my fall instead.  I smile and thank Bobby and he tells me his name’s Barrett.  I like Bobby better, but whatever makes him happy.

Her laughter’s a little different this time, like it’s mixed with something else.  I don’t think I’ll like whatever that is, so I smile (painfully) again.

“Small wonder I didn’t end up with a concussion or a missing tooth.”

I take the ice pack away and wave my hand at the pizza sitting on the table. 

“Now, eat.  It’s not much, but I slaved over it all afternoon.”

We sit in silence for awhile, she eats and I ice. 

“This is the third time I’ve had to open a tab, does your guy do that with anyone else?”

Jenna’s caught pulling a piece of pizza away, strings of cheese stretching between the two, being pulled on the rack.  I can almost hear their little screams.

She shakes her head and swallows.  “Not that I know of.”  She smiles.  “I think he likes you.”

“No, he thinks I like you.”

She tilts her head to the side and smiles some more.  “Is he wrong?”

I smile, set the ice pack down, and reach for a slice of pizza.

“Ya know what fascinated me as a kid?”  She shakes her head politely.  “The little phantom things you see out of the corner of your eye.  Like when you think you see something until you look back and it’s gone.  I always thought there were little shadow people hiding in my periphery, living half in this world and half in imagination, and it would be my life’s work to find and study them.  Then I’d start writing a book and just got native or something, life amongst the shadow people.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Shouldn't Someone Start Freaking Out Right Now?

I have no idea where I am or where I’ll be going, so running seems like a bad idea.  I’m not too terribly far from Nelson Boulevard, but I honestly don’t know Nelson all that well so I might get lost even if I get back there.  And I can’t very well start asking people for directions with this blood on me or they’ll just call the cops and I’ll be right back in this position.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

I dig my thumb into my thigh, fighting for a moment of clarity.  Only fragments come, but they’re enough to get me started.

Okay, time for Plan B.

I drop the phone back into the bag and fish out my utility knife.  Cutting the cable ties nearly gives me a panic attack, but I have to do it if I don’t want the cops far enough up my ass to tickle my tonsils.  I stuff the knife and the busted ties back in the bag and fish her gun out.  I set it next to her and then zip my bag up and stuff it into a garbage can just as the lights give way to a Crown Vic rolling slowly across the mouth of the alley.

I take a deep breath and start to panic.

Here!  Here!  Help!

For once in my life, I’m happy my voice will never be James Earl Jones low.  I’m hitting some pretty high notes here.

The Crown Vic comes to an immediate stop and the cop riding shotgun hops right out.  My fake panic stops melding with my real panic and starts being completely overwhelmed by it.

I could get arrested.  I’m going to get brought in for questioning.  They’re gonna check the alley and find my bag and God only knows what’ll happen then.

Shotgun cop must see part of Easley sticking out from behind the garage because he pulls his gun out.  My hands spring right up and his gun twitches upward for a second before I realize he’s not aiming it at me.  The driver is out of the car now too and is following his partner down the alley, gun drawn.  The first guy pulls up short of me once he sees Easley sprawled across the ground, his eyes keep flickering between her and me.  Thankfully his gun stays pointed at the ground.  His partner, who I’m now noticing is the elder of the two, holsters his gun once he reaches the scene.

Elder Cop puts a hand on Junior Cop’s shoulder and whispers something to him.  Junior gets right to work rolling Easley over and cuffing her.  Elder sets his sights on me.

“Are you hurt?”

It’s hard to focus on anything.  Is his expression concerned or suspicious?  If they bring me in will I have to sit in the back with Easley?


He speaks more slowly.  His voice is surprisingly calm.  “Are you hurt?”

My voice is not.  “No.”

“Whose blood is that?”

I look down at my shirt and assume there’s more of it on my face.  I don’t look like I just butchered someone, but I might’ve just killed a chicken and only cleaned the feathers off.

“Um.  Hers.  I, uh, broke her nose.  I think.”  I shake my head, trying to clear it.  The good news here is I’m gonna be able to sell the shell-shocked victim spiel. The bad news is, of course, that it’s mostly true.  My ability to think clearly and coherently hit its peak when I came up with my little plan of escape, and that plan involved getting myself pistol whipped so it wasn’t exactly a shining moment of intellect.  It’s all been downhill since then.

He holds a hand out.  “My name’s officer Mitchell Abrams.  And from the look of her, I’d say the nose is pretty broken.  Tough thing to have to do, defending yourself like that.”

I stare at him for a second, wondering if anyone could sincerely be this much of a “good cop” and if so, is his partner equally “bad cop”? 

I take his hand, but I don’t think my grip’s particularly impressive today.  “I—I don’t…”

He blinks and makes an odd face.

“Shit, yeah—‘how did you guys find me?’—right?”

I really hope I’m not that transparent about everything.

“We got a couple calls, saying a woman was holding someone at gunpoint on Nelson.  We had a couple cars in the neighborhood with all this Easley bullshit going on, so we wondered if it wasn’t her.  You got all kinds of lucky, kid.”

Certainly seems that way.

“Listen, my partner’s called in another unit to come and pick you up so we can drive you to the station separate from that woman.  Nothing serious, we just need a statement.  We’ll get you checked by an EMT too.  Is that alright?”

My head feels swimmy when I nod.  When Junior Cop gets back, it’s his turn to tap and whisper.  Abrams turns back to me and this time I’m sure he’s at least a little suspicious.  He’s looking past me to where Easley was lying.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name…”


“Wesley, my partner found blood over there by where our car is now.  On the sidewalk.  Is that related to this?”

My head’s spinning and I’m feeling a little sick, but I still know a cop question when I hear it.

“Yeah.  It’s hers.”

“Is that where you hit her?”

I nod.  Just tell the truth.  Most of the truth is completely reasonable here.

“I’m sorry, I’m confused.  If you hit her over there, how did she get over here?”

The little warning bells chime in my head:  cop question, cop question!  I wish I could do my breathing exercises without him noticing.  Calm myself down, stop being so paranoid.  No reason for him to suspect me of anything.  I’m the victim.

“I…I panicked…”  I look up at him, needing him to believe me.  I’m not sure if this is part of the lie or if I’m really this strung out, but I’m in dire need of some good faith here. 

Tell as much of the truth as you can. 

“She fell and I wasn’t trying to hit her, but we just got tangled up and, and I panicked.  I was alone…somewhere…with an unconscious woman, covered in blood, with a gun nearby, and what the fuck would someone think if they found me like that?  I just…I just needed some time to think…to figure out what I was supposed to do…”  I send out all the pathetic desperation I can and just pray it sticks.

Abrams doesn’t spend long considering me.  I must look like I’m about to collapse because I see a disgusting amount of pity in his eyes.  I wanna hit him so he’ll stop looking at me like that.  Yeah, I didn’t really factor in my seething hatred of being looked down on when coming up with this plan.

“It’s okay.  Don’t worry about it, you held up pretty well.”

He smiles a small smile, rewarding the brave little soldier for his courage, and even though I really am tweaking out about this and am somehow getting exactly what I want, I still have to fight off an intense urge to ruin it all.  He may mean well and he may be one of the truly good guys, but I cannot stand being condescended to and I don’t fucking need anyone’s pity.

My face is ticking spastically and I can’t figure out what to do with my hands.

What do people do with their hands after knocking an escaped criminal out and then getting picked up by the cops with blood all over them?

My insides are swinging from hot to cold sporadically, and now I can’t contain either my anger or my panic.  Instead of saying or doing anything (which is likely to get me in even more trouble), I look at my feet and nod.

It’s literally the first smart thing I’ve done since I left the house this morning.


Things go a little sideways once we get back to the station; apparently someone felt it necessary to look into my record before cutting me loose.  I’m still a couple months away from having a certain…youthful indiscretion…expunged from my record.  Something about underage drinking and public urination, I don’t really remember the details.  What I do remember is Alan busting his balls convincing the cops to go easy on me.  If I get into any more trouble with the law before my previous trouble blows over, Alan’s gonna have an aneurysm. 

And the fact that I’m behaving so the stick up an authority figure’s ass doesn’t get worked around a bit more makes me feel a little ill.

I swear to God if I call this cop “sir” at any point, I will bash my own head against the wall.

“So, apparently the media’s gathered outside—probably looking for an interview with the man who helped apprehend Violet Easley.”

I appreciate Abrams not calling me a kid, but I also feel less like I “helped apprehend Violet Easley” and more like I “single-handedly foiled her escape”.  That I stumbled ass over elbows onto her is of no consequence. 

“We can arrange for you to be picked up around back, more privately.”  He’s sporting a pretty impressive sour puss as he says the next bit.  “We generally advise against it quite strongly, but you’re also welcome to leave out the front, if you’d prefer.”

Now that things have settled down a bit and I’m not worried about being charged with criminal costuming, I kinda think I’d like a little recognition.  I don’t actually wanna talk to any of those people, but it might be cool to push my way through the crowd, waving off all questions.  Movies always make it look so impressive.

“The front door should be okay.  I’m not looking for an interview or anything, but getting my picture in the paper would be pretty solid.”

Abrams smiles.  Oh, the rambunctiousness of youth.  “They can use your yearbook photos for this too, if you’d rather.”

“Well, I haven’t actually taken a yearbook photo since I got into high school.  I keep forgetting where they’re taking the pictures and getting lost.  By the time I get my bearings, they’re gone.”  I shrug.


I do not call Susan for a ride.  Doesn’t matter that I’m there because I did something good (hugely stupid, but good), I really don’t want her to have to take off early from work to pick me up at the police station.  Especially since I still need to pick up my bag before it gets taken to the curb and that’s not the kinda favor I really wanna ask her for.

So when I shoulder my way through the crowd of reporters, my destination is Anna’s red Ford Focus, not Susan’s green Prius. 

I see Anna’s face through the window and can’t really decipher her expression.  I see confusion and nerves, but there’s more there I’m not getting.  She pulls away from the curb the second my door’s closed.

“I know you gave me a quick rundown over the phone, but let’s try it again.”

With no cops listening in this time, I give her the uncensored story and when I finish she punches me in the arm.  Pretty hard, actually.

“You stupid asshole!”

A laugh horns in on her scolding like she might be a little pleased that I did something good, even if it was stupid and dangerous.  Or it could just be wishful thinking, but I’m gonna stick with it anyway. 

I grin.  Anna swats at me again, still smiling.

“Don’t you look at me like that.  Just because I can’t keep a straight face doesn’t mean I’m amused by your antics.”

“Well then, I might as well earn all your ire at once.  You know how I told you I had to ditch my bag?  Well…I kinda need to get it back…it’s full of fairly important things…like the costume of a fairly well known vigilante with my fingerprints all over it…”

Her eyes flit over to me and with as straight a face as she can manage, she says, “You’re only saying that ‘cuz you think you’re too adorable to earn much ire from me.”

I give her my best pathetic puppy face.  “Well?”

She smacks me again.

“I’ll take you, but there will be ire.  A great deal of it.  Heaps, even.”

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Just Think "What Would Batman Do?"

Across the abyss stands a fading figure.  Monolithic, but for the steady particle-by-particle erasing, he is Promethean, cradling fire in his palm.  Dissipating from existence while the fire flickers and struggles, he twists.  Contorts.  Multifaceted eyes like bulbous, molten gems bubble up across his brow and cheeks as his skin peels, pushed aside by something gray and hard.  And he’s gone, leaving only a small globe of flame in his stead.  I stumble backward, bumping against something hard and transparent with a solid clunk.  The world sways and tips and shatters.  I tumble across a sea of glass, each piece jagged and ugly and yet utterly the same as the rest.  I bleed painlessly—silently—from a thousand ragged wounds.

And then I’m awake and pawing at my arms and chest.  Sweat seeps from imagined gashes.  My pillow’s on the floor and my sheets have been completely dislodged from the mattress, tucking themselves unevenly around my sprawled limbs and over the edge of the bed.  I’m hot and cold and shaking and twitching.  Boone snores softly, undisturbed by whatever scene I’ve been making.  My phone tells me I have almost three hours until my alarm goes off.  I find my iPod in the dark and put in headphones.  Jim Morrison sings of crystal ships as I stare up at the ceiling, watching shadows twist and contort.

The playlist rolls through The Gaslight Anthem’s mellow backseat strumming, Against Me!’s tense bassline, and The Kill’s fuzzed out forlorn before I go fetch my laptop.  Three hours isn’t enough time to go out on the town and I’m not getting back to sleep anytime soon, so I wander the new sites until something catches my eye. 

Yet another article reporting on an anonymous member of the law enforcement community slamming OPHR.  Third this month.  I skim, picking up the important parts like claims that OPHR bullies law enforcement agencies into dropping cases so they can hand pick who has to obey the law, obligatory quotes from the anti-post-human organizations like People for the Rights of Everyday Citizens, and even someone referencing me by name.  Makes me feel a bit warm and fuzzy.

And of course, more name calling.  “Illegals” isn’t an unfair term for unsanctioned post-human costumes like myself, but it is a little irksome.  Something about the name tastes sour.


“A recent poll conducted by Channel 11 shows that 66% of people are dissatisfied with OPHR’s competence.  These numbers are up from 27% in the last poll, taken just two weeks earlier.  When asked, over 71% of those dissatisfied cited the recent escape of post-human criminal, Violet Easley, as the main source of their current discontent.  Easley, known for a spree of high-end robberies committed earlier this year was apprehended just weeks ago trying to escape a break-in.  OPHR quickly stepped in and asked that the police transfer Easley into their custody.  Shortly afterward, the first anonymous law enforcement personnel in this recent string of denouncements spoke out against OPHR, claiming that their department was ‘strong-armed into giving up a dangerous criminal’.

“The transfer has been delayed several times due to undisclosed complications before finally happening yesterday.  However, late last night it was leaked that OPHR had lost Easley right after the transfer and was starting a manhunt to find her.  This morning, OPHR issued a statement urging caution to those living or working around the three addresses shown on-screen.  These are places Easley lived or frequented, and may return to.

“Further complicating matters is yet another anonymous report from within the law enforcement community—this one from within our very own police department—claiming that they were ordered by OPHR to keep news of Easley’s escape, and the ensuing manhunt, from the public.”


I’m so caught up in the news report that I barely hear myself muttering out loud.  I wanna call Alan, and ask him how they could possibly fuck up this badly.  Tell him they’re making guys like me look bad with this bullshit.  But I don’t.  Alan’s not involved in the law enforcement aspect of OPHR, there’s not a damn thing he can do about it.  He also doesn’t know I spend my nights dressed up in a full-body costume wailing on criminals (which makes me sound like I hang out at Mafia-owned BDSM clubs…), and I really don’t want him to know that.

So, I do the next best thing:  I arrogantly assume I can do something that neither OPHR nor the cops can do and go out looking for a dangerous criminal.  I take down the addresses from the TV, leave a note (a lie) on the refrigerator, and walk to the door.  Gripping the knob, I debate the merits of bringing my costume.  If I’m gonna go out and do something stupid like this, I should keep it on me, just in case.  But at the same time, I’m not exactly comfortable with the crispy state it’s in.  Or the crispy state I was in.

Fuck it.  Better to have it and not need it.

I run upstairs, grab my bag before I can start over-thinking things, and head out the door.


In a world where the answer to the question “Why is there an overturned ice cream truck in the middle of the road?” is “Because a woman with magnet powers flipped it over.”, I’m not sure why I thought I’d be able to track down an experienced post-human criminal without any knowledge of her power, but at this point, I’m starting to doubt myself.

So far, I’ve followed every single person who’s looked suspicious and the sum of my work has been my feeling like a stalker-perv.  One woman bought an inordinate amount of food at the grocery store, so I figured hey, maybe she’s stocking up so she can properly shelter the post-human fugitive she’s housing.  I know better than anyone that active post-humans can have very hearty appetites.  What did I find out?  That Cousin Justin and his new wife were coming into town to stay with them for the week and that the woman’s kid was very excited to see big Cousin Justin again.  Congratulations to me. 

Next up was a shifty looking guy who kept eyeballing every cop and security camera he passed by.  After following him along a suspicious couple laps around a three square block area, I found out that he was some small-time pothead dropping off little baggies of fun to suburban men and women who needed a pick-me-up before heading back to their little boxes made of ticky-tacky. 

I saw a woman who bore a passing resemblance to Easley shoplifting a pair of shoes, a kid who looked like a miniature Jason Segel pocket a pack of football cards, and I’m about to give up searching around the third address the reporter listed when something catches my attention. 

A nagging sensation that I’m being watched, like when I was poking around the ice cream truck.  I’ve been ignoring it for the last twenty or so minutes because when you’re wandering around a relatively crowded area, it’s hard to ever not have a pair of eyes on you, but at this point I’m starting to get paranoid. 

I don’t have major social anxiety, I’m not freaked out by large crowds of people, and though I am a little more sensitive than most when it comes to feeling eyes on the back of my neck, I don’t usually have issues like this. 

It’s at this point that something metal jabs against my back and a hand clamps down on my shoulder.  The metal thing jabbing me makes a clicking sound that’s alarmingly similar to the sound of a pistol’s hammer being thumbed back.

“Smile.  Smile like we’re family friends who haven’t seen each other in awhile.”

I smile weakly and turn my head toward the hushed female voice.

“Face front, dipshit.  I don’t know you from Adam and I will blow your goddamn spine out through your stomach if you don’t do exactly as I say.  Deal?”

The little stretch of spine directly in front of the barrel of her gun goes icy and starts tingling.  I have to swallow three times before I can respond.


“Good.  Keep walking straight.  I’ll tell you when to turn.  Now laugh, all my friends think I’m fucking hysterical and I just told you a joke.”

Has anyone ever told you just how hard it is to act cheery when someone’s threatening to cripple you?  Cuz it is.  The sound that comes out of my mouth only loosely qualifies as a chuckle.

She jabs the gun harder into my back.  “Turn right here and keep your hands out of the goddamn bag.”  We head down a less crowded side street and I feel a sudden pang of loss for the crowd we’re leaving behind.  “Who are you and how did you find me?”

“I, uh, I don’t even know who you are so how could I find you?”

“I’ve seen you three times today.  Once at Martin’s Square, again at Prince Avenue, and then just now when I picked you up on Nelson Boulevard.  All three times you were looking around, looking for someone.  You’re way too young to be a cop, so who are you and how did you find me?”

Oh God…

“Please tell me you’re not Violet Easley…”

She jams the gun harder into my back.  “No.  And that’s your one and only question.  Left here.”

Oh sweet shit, not only did I not find the criminal I was looking for, I drew the ire of an entirely different criminal who just got the drop on me.  And I’m not even in costume.  It’s official, no one has ever been worse at this than I am.

We’re leaving civilization fast.  This street’s only one step above a dark alley.  To the left of us is nothing but a row of garages blocking the view of the apartments and to the right is an apartment building that may or may not even be habitable.

Do something!

“Really?  Because your answer leads me to another question,” and before I can stop to consider whether this’ll get me what I want or just get me shot, I ask “Are you hot?  Because I need to know whether to just feel terrified or terrified and turned on…”

Unfortunately for me, my exceptionally sexist remark gets me exactly what I was hoping for.  Miss Hostage-Taker snarls and pistol whips me. 

The second I feel her take the pistol off of my back I start leaning forward a little, not enough to run away or to avoid getting clubbed, just enough to drop my bag without getting tangled and then lean away from the hit. 

When she does hit me, I’m already moving.  A glancing blow to the head is still painful enough to disorient me a little, but a pistol that’s smacking someone is a pistol that isn’t able to shoot them through the spine.  I turn and grab her wrists as I fall, dragging her to the ground with me.  From there, all I can do is turn my hips to (hopefully) keep her from landing knee-to-groin, and bring my chin down before she lands.  Luck and heightened reflexes are on my side and her nose smacks squarely against the crown of my head. 

Hooray for finally doing something right.

She slumps off of me and lands in an unconscious heap on the pavement.  Unfortunately, I’m now covered in little splotches of her blood and I still have no idea who she is or why she pulled a gun on me.

What I do know is that she was in all three of the places Violet Easley was said to frequent, she was on high enough alert to notice me looking around at all three places, and that whatever had her on high alert was enough to get her to pull a gun on me.  I’m starting to wish there was a summer course at the Batman Academy that taught amateur crime fighters detective skills.  Hell, at this point I’d settle for a YouTube video from a Sherlock Holmes-wannabe. 

So, now what?  Found…someone, got snatched, knocked said someone unconscious, and now I’m in the middle of the sidewalk, crouched over the unconscious body of a woman whose blood is spattered all over me.  God.  Dammit.

I take a look around, momentarily thankful for the all-but-abandoned street we’re on.  No one’s started screaming yet.  I don’t hear police sirens off in the distance.  Maybe I’m okay.  I decide that’s a sign from God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or whatever it is that runs the universe that my idiocy has been blessed.  I loop my arms under her shoulders and drag her into the nearest alley, hoping I don’t get mistaken for a rapist by an inconvenient passerby. 

Long black hair, soft cheek bones, a slightly flat nose (which might be my fault), and a long face.  Her skin’s olive.  I clearly don’t know her, but I keep staring like that’ll suddenly change. 

I set her down between two dirty, faded garages and go back for her gun.  I make sure to grab it with my sleeve over my hand, just in case I need to not have my prints on a criminal’s gun.  Into my bag goes the gun (until I can find a better place for it), and out comes a pair of cable ties.  Ankles and wrists. 

I’m grateful for the cover provided by the two garages now because I definitely look like a rapist.  Goosebumps roll across my arms and chest and I shiver.

Now, seriously.  What next?

Fragments of thought, exasperation, confusion, and God knows what else start clogging my brain, swirling too fast for me to process.  Something pulses between my eyes and I wonder if my brain’s gonna erupt from my forehead like a Chestburster.

I lean against one of the garage walls and slide down to the ground.  With my eyes squeezed shut, I start winding down.  Deep, deep breath; let it fill my entire chest and stomach.  Hold it.  Push it out.  Rotate my head, around and around.  Roll my shoulders.  Keep breathing.  Bend my elbows, clench my biceps, extend, flex my triceps.  Chest.  Wrists.  Fists.  Thighs.  Calves.  All the way down to my toes. 

And I nearly lose my shit entirely when my unconscious friend groans and rolls over.  I manage not to shriek by the thinnest of margins. I don’t even bother trying not to jump backwards.

She’s still snugly cable tied, but her hair’s different.  It’s getting shorter and blondeness is overtaking the formerly dark strands like the tide washing in.  Her cheekbones are more pronounced, her nose looks slenderer (but still a little broken), her skin’s lightened, and her ears are inching flatter to her skull.  I don’t know exactly what color her eyes were before, but they’re bright green now.  I also don’t remember there being a birthmark on her neck.

All told, this woman now bears a striking resemblance to Violet Easley. 

Okay.  Now I’ve lost my shit.

Since when the fuck are shapeshifters a real thing?  And why didn’t anyone mention that the big, scary criminal everyone’s looking for can change her appearance at will?  And holy shit, when did I start doing my post-human business without a costume?  Now is the time to walk away.  Put a call in to OPHR and just walk away.  What more can I do here?  Dress myself up and walk this woman to the PD’s lobby?  (No, daylight superheroing is not on the table for Illegals.  Tried it, didn’t like it.)  Just put in a call, pretend to be a bystander who saw someone fitting the Sentinel’s description, and then walk the hell away.  I’ll have to torch this burner afterwards, just to be safe, but life’s full of little sacrifices.

It’s only after fishing the burner phone out of my bag that I realize I didn’t copy down the hotline number OPHR posted.  Which leaves me with two less than ideal options. 

One, call the police and have them bring in Easley.  She’ll still get to OPHR and this mess’ll be cleaned up, but it doesn’t reflect particularly well on OPHR that they had to resort to such methods and at the moment, my alter-ego is catching splash damage from OPHR’s shitty PR. 

Option two is to call Alan on my burner and hope he doesn’t think it’s a prank.  Alan can pitch it up the line and OPHR can save the day and hopefully start taking the heat off of amateur crime-fighters such as myself. 

It’s during this moment of contemplation that I see the roving red and blue of police lights creep up the street.

Fucking wonderful.